‘Akeelah and the Bee’ at Arena Stage

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How do you spell T-E-R-R-I-F-I-C  S-H-O-W?

Those of us with Millennial-generation children are used to the intensity of youth sports, like football, lacrosse or soccer, being played outdoors on a turf field. Helicopter parents hover, screaming insults at the referees, and shrieking even more loudly to override the coach’s instructions to their kid. For some parents, it becomes an all-consuming passion: they send their youngsters to special sports camps, get them personal trainers at age 7, and put them on travel teams that ship them all over the region, across the country or to other continents.

 Zaria Graham, Johannah Easley, Ana Christine Evans, Sean Phinney. and Leo James. Photo by Dan Norman.
Zaria Graham, Johannah Easley, Ana Christine Evans, Sean Phinney, and Leo James. Photo by Dan Norman.

All in hopes of landing a berth on a college D1 team.

Spelling Bees are just as brutal a sport.

This reviewer once covered one of the Scripps National Spelling Bee competitions held each year in Washington. We had to pass through a security check and metal detector to enter the ballroom where the intense competition was taking place. The students stood, listened to the word they were supposed to spell, asked that it be repeated, often requested its use in a sentence, then slowly began to spell. One by one, like duckpins, they were knocked down by incorrect answers. One had no idea what a “fashionista” was. Or, how to spell it.

Those who’d been DQ’d tried to look stoic, but they were crushed.

In a ladies restroom, out of earshot of the judges, an Amish parent was relentlessly drilling her daughter on long lists of polysyllabic words.

Heading into Akeelah And The Bee at the Kreeger at Arena Stage, that memory was still fresh. Some elements of the national spelling bees form the backbone of this M-A-R-V-E-L-O-U-S show that had its world premier in Minneapolis before coming to D.C.

Akeelah And The Bee, directed with so much heart and joy by Charles Randolph-Wright, is a world premier co-production of the Minneapolis-based Children’s Theatre Company and Arena Stage.

It’s one production where “Youth Company Chaperone” is listed in the credits.

The show is not Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, or Langston Hughes. What it is, is refreshing, fun, dramatic, sassy, suspenseful and – hey! – we’ve all seen our kids behave like that.

Layered with contemporary slang, gestures and dress, wrapped in the gritty gauze of a downtrodden Chicago neighborhood, it has a familiar plot line of a person overcoming all odds in their desire to achieve a goal. Yet, its message resonates – no matter one’s circumstances or surroundings, hard work, resilience, and support from family and friends can overcome all obstacles.

The message reverberated through the diverse audience that filled the theater, especially the numerous youngsters in the seats. Alexander V. Nichols’ set was amazing, and worth the price of the ticket.

Set back the black semicircular stage are four boxes rising two stories. Each one appears to be a skeletal structure, the gray wooden bones of a townhouse with a staircase leading to a second floor set. One side of each structure appears to have rows of ragged furring strips or worn bricks. The other side is covered with a sheer screen. One “building” sports a sign, Du’s Grocery.

The structures move, rotate and change. In one scene, they do a 180-spin, revealing a cherry wood library. The furring strips turn out to be volumes of books. Another spin turns the structures into large flat surfaces on which to flash photos and live video. Michael Gilliam (Lighting), Jessica Jahn (Costumes), and Sten Severson (sound) also contribute excellent work.

Even more amazing were the actors, young and old. Most of the cast is from Minneapolis.

Johannah Easley. Photo by Dan Norman.
Johannah Easley. Photo by Dan Norman.

Johannah Easley, a 17-year old senior at the St. Paul’s public charter school St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts, is P-H-E-N-O-M-E-N-A-L in her portrayal of Akeelah Anderson. The character, an 11-year old living in a Chicago ghetto, is suffering the loss of her father, who was killed by a robber during a hold up.

She and her dad shared a facility for spelling and word games. She is younger than most of her classmates because, earlier, she’d skipped a grade. A 17-year old performing the role of an 11-year old character doesn’t seem like much of a stretch at first blush, but there’s a lot of mileage between the two ages. Easley’s incredible performance makes it look easy. She radiates the sassy insouciance of a true adolescent. It’s hard to imagine this talented actress has ever tried on lipstick or a prom dress. But, beneath her streetwise persona, the Akeelah character struggles with acceptance, uncertainty, rejection and pain.

Easley nails it.

Akeelah’s best friend Georgia, portrayed beautifully by another 17-year old from the Conservatory, Zaria Graham, is not into spelling. She’s consumed by fashion.

Zaria Graham, Nathan Barlow, Aimee K. Bryant, and James A. Williams. Photo by Dan Norman.
Zaria Graham, Nathan Barlow, Aimee K. Bryant, and James A. Williams. Photo by Dan Norman.

Rhonda (Shavunda Horsley) puts a street-stylin’ spin on being the schoolyard bully. She torments Akeelah relentlessly for participating in their school spelling bee.

Akeelah’s big brother, Reggie Anderson (Nathan Barlow), is a high school dropout and father of an infant. He’s on the brink of deciding what kind of lifestyle he wants for himself, his family and his own child. Their mother Gail Anderson (Aimee K. Bryant) doesn’t want Akeelah’s focus to shift away from her schoolwork. She forbids Akeelah’s participation in spelling bees. Her affection and attention is, seemingly, all reserved for Reggie.

More bullying, along racial lines, comes from Dylan Chiu (Sean Phinney), a driven Asian-American attending an exclusive private academy in an upscale part of Chicago. Javier Mendez, a Hispanic student (Leo James), attends the same school, but is open and welcoming to Akeelah’s attempts to win a spot in the top tier competition at the National Bee

James A. Williams, reminiscent of James Earl Jones, is Dr. Joshua Larabee, who becomes Akeelah’s coach and mentor who, in his youth came in second in the National Spelling Bee. An African-American, he is a role model for what Akeelah might grow up to be.

This alphabet soup of characters and plot lines bubbles with energy, passion and comedic energy. The actors don’t remain on stage throughout the performance. And, the audience members occasionally become participants in the onstage action.

Akeelah and the Bee is a great holiday gift for the entire family. Wrap up some tickets, pop them under the Christmas tree, and watch everyone b-e-a-m when they see the show!

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.

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Akeelah and the Bee plays through December 27, 2015, on the Kreeger Stage at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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Wendi Winters
Wendi Winters is a writer, reporter, columnist and photographer - and a former NYC public relations executive. A good portion of her career has been in public relations - backed by solid experience in fashion retailing, wholesaling, textiles, marketing, advertising, design and promotion. She owned her own successful fashion public relations/advertising/special events/runway show production firm for seven years. As a journalist, she was the first freelancer to bring a journalism award home to The Capital - and then earned two more awards. Since May 2013, Ms. Winters has been a full time staff member at Capital Gazette Communications. Prior to that, she freelanced for the company for twelve years. Including her three weekly columns, she writes more than 250 articles annually. Her writing byline has appeared in Details Magazine, What's Up? Annapolis Magazine, and numerous others. She's been a feature writer for Associated Press Special Features and for Copley News Service. For years, her fashion critic columns ran in the NYC weeklies Manhattan Spirit and Our Town. Since moving to this area in 1999, as a D.C./Baltimore-area theatre critic, her reviews appeared in Theatre Spotlight and The Review. Plus, she was a Helen Hayes Awards nominator for two terms. Mother of four, she continues to be active as a Girl Scout leader and a regional church youth advisor. You bet she can make a mean S'More!